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Africa and Aboriginal Tuesdays: Episcopal Bishop Claims ANWR Oil Drilling Threatens The Gwich'in People's Way of Life.

The bishops of the Episcopal Church, concerned about oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, dispatched an emissary to the U.S. Senate with a simple message: Leave our people--and their caribou--alone.

Bishop Mark McDonald of Alaska said President Bush's plan to allow drilling--which the Senate supported Wednesday in a 51-49 vote--would destroy the habitat of the native Gwich'in people, 90 percent of whom are Episcopalians.

The bishops, meeting in Navasota, Texas, had sent McDonald to Washington on Tuesday with a stern message that drilling would cause untold damage to "this unspoiled web of life" for the Gwich'in and the caribou herds on which they rely.

"To risk the destruction of an untouched wilderness and an ancient culture violates our theological mandate to be caretakers of creation," the bishops said in a statement from Texas.

McDonald appeared with Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) in support of her motion to deny Bush the $2.5 billion in drilling leases that is part of the president's proposed 2006 budget. Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) is among those who support drilling.

Bush, who has made drilling in Alaska central to his energy policy, said last week that oil could be pumped "with almost no impact on land or wildlife." Skeptics contend there is far less oil under the tundra than supporters say.

There are about 7,000 Gwich'in people in the United States and Canada, McDonald said, and they predominate in about a dozen of the 50 parishes in his frontier diocese.

Episcopalians have frequently been the most outspoken faith group opposed to drilling in the refuge, in part because of their connection with the Gwich'in.

A Canadian missionary first spread the gospel among the Gwich'in in 1860 and within a decade had translated the Bible into the Gwich'in language.

The Gwich'in live in about 15 isolated communities along the migration paths of the 120,000-strong porcupine caribou herds. The herds provide food and income, and drilling in northeast Alaska would disrupt their herding and birthing grounds, McDonald said.

He argued there's an equal danger for indigenous rights for native peoples. "It's a clear case of where the environment and human rights are both at stake," he said in an interview. "There's no hiccup of a doubt about that."

Luci Beach, a Gwich'in and director of the Gwich'in Steering Committee, said the area is not just a pristine wilderness, but a sacred place held in high regard in native spirituality.

"This is a blessed place we've been given; how can we even contemplate desecrating this sacred place?" she asked.

The drilling proposal has become a key skirmish between Republicans and Democrats. GOP supporters inserted the provision into a budget document that is immune from a Democratic filibuster. Even with Wednesday's Senate vote, both chambers of Congress still must agree on a budget this year in order to stave off a future filibuster on the issue.

Victory for either side is far from clear. With many Alaskans--including the powerful Stevens--favoring drilling, McDonald conceded he has an uphill fight.

"To be for the Gwich'in and the [Arctic refuge] is not a popular position in Alaska," he said. "It's not always easy and certainly oftentimes hard."

This article appeared in The Chicago Tribune under the headline "Church fights Alaska drilling"

Kevin Eckstrom

Tuesday, March 22, 2005

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